Exploring European Settlement and the Native Population of the Americas for the GED Social Studies Test

By Achim K. Krull, Murray Shukyn

The GED Social Studies test will ask questions related to the European settlement of the Americas. The European settlement of North America profoundly changed the lives of Native Americans. The French came in the 1500s, mainly to trade, and had relatively peaceful relations with the Algonquin tribes around the Great Lakes and lands stretching to Ohio, Wisconsin, and Illinois.

The English came in the 1600s to settle. They settled in lands that became known as the 13 colonies, and over time the English displaced the natives as settlers took over the lands they wanted.

The European ability to push natives aside rested on two factors: disease and guns. Europeans brought with them smallpox, measles, cholera, diphtheria, and many other diseases. Natives had no previous exposure to these diseases, and so no immunity; their populations were decimated by repeated epidemics. The natives had no firearms, and bows and spears were no match for the flintlocks and other firearms the Europeans had. In battles where natives had no firearms, the Europeans generally won. However, that advantage was lost when natives acquired these goods through trade.

Initial contact with the English settlers and natives was also cordial. The settlers needed help. Most were the disenfranchised of England, poor rabble and refugees of persecution. They had little knowledge of farming or hunting and depended on the natives, who taught them the skills they needed to survive.

Captain John Smith’s Virginia colony survived only because the local tribe sent food. However, as the colonies expanded inland, contact became hostile, especially over the concept of land ownership. The natives considered all land communal property, and although they were willing to share, they could not accept the European idea of land ownership.

The Vikings tried to settle in North America well before the Spanish, French, or English. They too were met by the local natives. After only a few years, the Vikings abandoned their settlements in the face of native hostility.

Why might the Vikings have fared worse than the later Europeans?

  • (A) The level of technology of the Vikings was not much higher than that of the Native Americans. They both fought mainly with spears and bows.

  • (B) The natives were resistant to diseases the Vikings carried.

  • (C) The local environment was not suitable for Viking settlement.

  • (D) The Vikings just decided to return home.

The correct answer is Choice (A). The first contact between Vikings and the local Native Americans very quickly turned hostile. Because the Vikings didn’t have any great technological advantage and were far fewer in number, they could not resist the natives’ attacks and decided to abandon their settlement.

Many Native American tribes allied with the French before the American Revolution. The French had generally left native lands alone because their primary focus was on the fur trade. After the defeat of the French and the coming of the American Revolution, many tribes, especially the Iroquois, sided with the British.

They argued that the British had done much to keep settler spread into Native American lands to a minimum and hoped to preserve their lands against colonial expansion. For the same reasons, they supported the British again during the War of 1812, where the American military feared them more than they did the British or Canadian forces. The Iroquois, more than British soldiers, prevented Americans from conquering Canada.

As the settlers prospered, they needed more lands, and a cycle of conflict started. Successive wars with the Native Americans led to massacres, both of colonists and Native Americans. Natives made agreements with colonial governments to give up lands to the settlers in return of guarantees that their other territories would be left alone and settlers would not move into new territories.

After a few years, when the settlers needed more lands, they again invaded Native American territories, and after a brief conflict, new treaties were signed and the process began over again. Native Americans also lost their reservations, pressured by state governments to leave, opening the land for settlement. Few reservations guaranteed by various treaties survived the original 13 colonies.